Challenge mentality behind 'Gold Bae' Sarah Sjostrom's decade of dominance

In the demanding world of elite swimming, the Swedish 100m butterfly Olympic champion reveals how she has stayed on top for over a decade, and how she will challenge for another three Olympic Games.

You must be doing something right as a swimmer when your teammates start calling you Gold Bae. That nickname - an athlete adaptation of famous Turkish chef Salt Bae - was given to Sarah Sjostrom.

In 2009, the six-foot Swede won her first 100m butterfly world title as a 15-year-old. At Rio 2016, she stormed to Olympic gold in the same event, while also taking home the 200m free silver and 100m bronze.

Fast-forward to 2020 and, while many swimmers lose motivation after Olympic success, Sjostrom is the reigning FINA World Swimmer of the Year as we approach Tokyo 2020, leaving many to wonder how she is still at the top of such a physically demanding game.

“When you have been swimming at the top level as long as I have, you need to challenge yourself sometimes,” the 26-year-old told FINA.org.

"I chose to challenge myself and wanted to try to take five individual medals in one championship"

An example of Sjostrom’s desire to avoid plateauing in her career came at the 2019 World Aquatics Championships. After a decade of top-level competition, the three-time Olympian could have been forgiven for decreasing the amount of events she competes in, and focus on retaining her butterfly titles.

Instead, despite being older than most of her rivals, she challenged for five different individual events knowing that her busy schedule would affect her chances of winning gold in the butterfly events.

“I know I would have swum faster at the World Championships if I hadn’t taken on the 200 free,” she admitted afterwards.

“But even though I knew it would be like this, I don’t regret doing it. I chose to challenge myself and wanted to try to take five individual medals in one championship.

“Next time, I might choose a different challenge.”

Gold Bae well and truly lived up to her friendly moniker by taking out the 50m butterfly title in Gwangju, before adding two silvers (50m free and 100m fly) and two bronzes (100m and 200m free) in an unrivalled haul that saw her named swimmer of the year.

Focussing on improvement

While empty space in Sjostrom’s trophy cabinet is as rare as her off days, perhaps another secret to her success is that she refuses to dwell on previous victories. Instead, the humble veteran forever focusses on where she can improve.

“I still have just as great development potential as the rest of the girls. It's feels good to be able to say that as a 26-year-old" - Olympic champion Sarah Sjostrom.

“In butterfly my technique has often got worse when I have focused on different details. But during the autumn we have started filming more during the training sessions to see if there was anything we could change.”

Adapting to body changes

One drawback of competing internationally from such a young age, is having to adapt to a maturing body shape.

At the start of her career, racing older athletes meant she struggled out of the blocks with a lack of explosive muscle power. These days as one of the circuit veterans, it is the second-half of Sjostrom’s 100m races where she has a tendency to lose power with the onset of fatigue.

“I have tried different ways of swimming the 100 fly in recent years,” the Energy Standard star said.

“I seem to be just as tired in the last 25 metres, regardless of my opening 50. You also have to remember that my physical conditions today are completely different compared with 10 years ago. I have at least 10 kilos more muscle and I am overall stronger. So what was right back then is not necessarily right now.

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Lazy Sunday

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Switching to short sprints?

Sjostrom is now at a point where she has to balance challenging herself, with her desire to keep swimming internationally for another decade.

Her best chance of success appears to be in the shorter 50m and 100m events, where she is able to exploit her explosiveness while not compromising speed in the home straight.

“I think I am going to be more of a 50 swimmer,” she told Swimming World Magazine.

“I am still really good at short course… and I think the 50s are my favourite.”

However, while there are 50m competitions across all four major strokes at the world championships, only the 50m free exists at an Olympics. So don’t count her out of some of the longer events just yet.

“It depends on how it feels when the competition is approaching,” Sjostrom, who will be 27 when she competes at the Tokyo Olympics in 2021, continued.

“The 200m free will never be my favourite distance, but if it feels good during training when we get closer to the Olympics, I might just swim it. It is an incredible luxury that I have so many different events that I can choose to swim.

“Maybe I can handle another 12 years but maybe I won’t go to world champs and win five medals every time any more. I think my body is starting to feel a little sore sometimes.

"I think I could do three more (Olympic Games if focussing on the short sprints)," she told teammate Michael Andrew's YouTube channel.

Sarah Sjostrom was awarded the 2019 Female Swimmer of the Year award after her impressive showing in Gwangju.
Sarah Sjostrom was awarded the 2019 Female Swimmer of the Year award after her impressive showing in Gwangju.Sarah Sjostrom was awarded the 2019 Female Swimmer of the Year award after her impressive showing in Gwangju.

Chasing world records

Swimming in multiple events isn't the only challenge Sjostrom has set herself in the coming year.

"The Olympics only come around every four years, and getting in shape and preforming at your top level just at that moment is a challenge itself," she offered. "But it’s been a while since I did a PB, so that might be a good challenge for the coming season."

A personal best time is a fantastic achievement for any elite swimmer that has competed for a long time. But when the current long-course world record-holder in the 50m and 100m free and fly events says that they want a new personal best, the challenge takes on a different kind of significance.

"Then the goal is to swim in world record times again!" she revealed with a smile.

Watch out world, it looks like another challenge accepted by the Sweden's golden girl, who is chasing another decade on top.

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